Kundera's wonderful debut,
This review is from: The Joke (Paperback)
The Joke, Kundera's first novel (from 1965), is a very rich, multifaceted and mature piece of work that is likely to appeal on many levels and warrant many a rereading. The basic story of several people's lives in post WW2 Czechoslovakia, all revolving around the protagonist - Ludvik Jahn - is told from the various people's point of view in separate sections, finishing with the final one, where they start interchanging each other in each subchapter. The method was not new (Wilke's The Moonstone used a similar storytelling method more than 100 years earlier) but works very well with this book, adding a richness that would be hard to achieve if the story was told only from the protagonist's point of view.
The Joke - something Ludvik plays on a fling during his student years - has bitter consequences for his later life, and all his subsequent actions are to some extent influenced by that one moment in time. The book, though, tells much more than just one man's story. In fact, one learns a lot about the atmosphere prevailing in the Czech Republic (and more broadly in Eastern Europe) at the time, the energy of the early years, the slow decline and the later disillusionment and questioning. In that it may not be quite as insightful as Koestler's Darkness at Noon but it is very good nevertheless, plus it deals with the 'common man', as opposed to a hard core party member.
Where I think the author succeeds particularly well, is in actually portraying real people, each with a developed and realistic personality, all with their fears and foibles. The book is likely to lead to some introspection in the reader and while this is certainly another of the book's qualities, beware that it is not strictly speaking a happy book.
If you are looking for a mature piece of writing (quite a feat for a debut) on life (in CZ as well as more generally), you will be amply rewarded here. A summer / beach type read, or a chicken soup for the soul, this is not.